Thu Nov 18 2021 Michael McQueen

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have been popular gimmicks in recent years, used by futuristic companies to exhibit the potentials of technology. However, events of recent weeks and months are seeing what was once considered technological potential become a fast-approaching reality from the retail sector to health to the real world itself.

To clarify the distinction between these two technology applications, AR overlays digital information on real-world objects by using the camera on a mobile device, while VR obscures the real world and the user is immersed in a fully digital experience.

One of the areas in which we are seeing the biggest AR and VR transformation is that of retail and e-commerce, a trend that was only accelerated by the pandemic. One of the key advantages bricks-and-mortar retailers have enjoyed over their online counterparts has been the ability to genuinely try before you buy. However, that ability is no longer limited to in-store experiences, with an increasing number of companies using VR and AR to offer customers the same advantage.

One recent patent secured by Amazon hints at the retail giant’s ambitions to use augmented reality to display images of products such as jewellery, glasses, watches, and furniture. Cameras and sensors will track the shopper’s movement and their environment to create the experience of actually wearing or using the object. To make the images seem as realistic as possible, the patent even described replicating reflective surfaces in the room. A second patent the company secured revolved around technology that would project images of products into a room so shoppers could see how furniture or other items look in-situ before making a purchase.[1]

The COVID-19 pandemic also saw IKEA significantly ramp up their augmented reality technology as stores were forced to close around the world. In April 2020, the Swedish home furnishing and décor giant gave some indication of their AR ambitions with the bold acquisition of Geomagical Labs. Geomagical’s technology has enabled IKEA customers to scan a room at home using their smartphone, remove the existing furniture from the image, and then essentially ‘play dress ups’ with furniture they are considering to purchase online.[2]

Taiwan-based Perfect Corp is also a player to watch when it comes to augmented reality. The company’s AR beauty app YouCam is now being used by customers to sample products from over 300 leading brands including Estée Lauder and L’Oréal.[3] The COVID-19 pandemic also saw fashion eyewear company Warby Parker make enormous inroads with their augmented reality technology which allows customers to try on glasses virtually in-app. While purchasing reading or fashion glasses online may have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, augmented reality is rapidly changing the expectations and behaviour of consumers.[4]

Although still in its infancy, augmented reality technology is already having a persuasive impact on consumer behaviour with 61% of US adults reporting that AR had already influenced where they shopped and what they purchased on at least one occasion.[5] An estimated 100 million consumers are forecast to shop via augmented reality by the late 2020s.[6]

The uses of AR are not limited to retail however, with one of the most significant breakthroughs being in the field of eyewear. Technology invented by a Californian company called Mojo Vision involves digital screens fitted onto contact lenses that allow users to view AR images directly from their eyeballs rather than through a smartphone screen. It’s not hard to see just how game changing technology like this could be. 

Picking up on this theme, Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement in September 2020 that Facebook was developing a new range of smart-glasses modelled on Raybans offered hints of what lay ahead for AR. Beyond eyewear and AR though, Zuckerberg underscored the significance and potential of VR, predicting in 2015 that immersive 3D content would be ‘the obvious next thing after video’.[7]

Come October 2021 and the Facebook’s vision for a new VR, AR, AI-powered universe is now set to become just that: a universe, or more accurately, a ‘Metaverse’. Embracing the new name, ‘Meta’, the company announced plans of moving towards the Metaverse, or a new era of the internet characterised by immersive experiences as opposed to the merely visual nature of our existing internet. Zuckerberg confirmed his 2015 prediction by explaining the evolution of the internet from text, to images, to video and now finally to fully immersive experiences. His forecast is well and truly reaching fruition, and few others could have predicted the extent of the immersive experiences set to become the norm in the coming decade.[8]

Utilising the capabilities of both AR and VR, Zuckerberg wants to take us towards a new version of reality in which the world of the physical and the world of the virtual are near indistinguishable. For all fields of life, from socialising, gaming and entertainment, to finance, work and education, the Metaverse promises a world in which you literally can be in two places at once. Individuals will be able to connect with their friends with ‘a shared sense of space’ in another tech-enabled world. Workers can work remotely but remain connected to the office through augmented technology.[9]

One of the physical products which will enable this Metaverse is Meta’s new ‘Project Cambria’, a new VR headset that promises high definition, coloured mixed reality and avatars that can mimic real facial expression and make natural eye contact. Those AR Rayban glasses he announced last year have been released and are a key step in pursuing this new reality. Users can take photos, answer phone calls and listen to music all through the simple, traditional style glasses. The AR glasses to come will enable full access to the internet, from chatting to shopping to gaming, in images that overlay the view of the real world.[10]

Another product that will allow Meta users to literally feel the Metaverse is the haptic glove the company is designing. Wearers of this glove will be able to feel sensations like heat, texture and pressure through the glove. While still in its early stages, this technology will be key for the Metaverse vision presented to us by Zuckerberg, and will be a crucial step in making the virtual world physical.[11]

The pace at which AR and VR are evolving is astounding, and forces like the pandemic have only accelerated it, making many of us painfully aware of the need for greater connection online. Where AR and VR were once gimmicks for flashy brands or niche technology for futuristic companies, they are set to become commonplace in the years to come, a universal norm for the new Metaverse.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1] 2017, ‘Amazon Patents Point To AR Tech For Home Try-On’,  CB Insights blog, 25 July.

[2] Lunden, I. 2020, ‘Ikea acquires AI imaging startup Geomagical Labs to supercharge room visualisations’, TechCrunch, 2 April.

[3] Cohen, J. 2021, ‘As in-store sales lose gas, makeup goes SaaS’, The Hustle, 11 January.

[4] Ip, G. 2020, ‘Covid-19 Propelled Businesses Into the Future. Ready or Not’, The Wall Street Journal, 26 December.

[5] Clark, B. 2020, ‘This Is The Future of In-Store Experience Post COVID-19’, Acquire, 26 May.

[6] 2017, ‘Break Through The Hype – Uncover The Reality Of A.I.’, Oracle + Bronto, July

[7] Mims, C. 2015, ‘Virtual Reality Isn’t Just About Games’, The Wall Street Journal, 2 August.

[8] 2021, ‘The Metaverse and How We'll Build It Together -- Connect 2021’, Meta, 29 October.

[9] 2021, ‘The Metaverse and How We'll Build It Together -- Connect 2021’, Meta, 29 October.

[10] 2021, ‘The Metaverse and How We'll Build It Together -- Connect 2021’, Meta, 29 October.

[11] Tangermann, V 2021, ‘Facebook Shows Off Gloves That Allow You to “Feel” VR Objects’, Futurism, 18 November.